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Two Directors Filmed Real Love, Fights, and Sex As Their Relationship Burned to the Ground — And Now It’s a Movie

Josephine Decker and Zefrey Throwell tried to capture their love on camera, but ended up turning their romance into a piece of performance art.

Actors Josephine Decker and Zefrey Throwell make love in the bathroom. Film still from FLAMES. Photo by Ashley Connor.

“Flames”

Ashley Connor

Movies often engender these kind of conflicts. There’s a great story that Juliette Binoche once told about how even writer-director Abbas Kiarostami used to get tripped up over this stuff on the set of “Certified Copy.” He didn’t believe actors feel true emotions on film; that they actually feel pain when they cry on screen. Binoche disagreed. “I think that several times he was taken aback, he didn’t know some moments whether they were real,” she said. “He would ask his assistant because he forgot, and when you forget you’re going into another reality, you’re creating life in film.”

There is a lot of life in “Flames.” So much that so that it started to get in the way. For Decker, who was concerned that all the nudity might interfere with her secret dream of teaching middle school English, the sex was the easy part. She knew what to do. The re-creations were similarly self-instructive — muscle memory. It was only when they waded into the uncharted waters of Danger Island that things started to break down. They were no longer re-telling a story; it wasn’t therapy anymore. “When you’re re-enacting something you kind of know how it went,” Decker said, “but when you’re just filming your real life, then you’re kind of vying over who’s winning the arguments, who’s coming across good on camera. To me, that was when the filming started to get in the way of the relationship.”

Of course, the end ultimately came a lot sooner for Decker than it did for Throwell. And when it was over for her, she didn’t want anyone to see the footage. It wasn’t just the nudity, it was also everything else. She might have implicitly trusted Throwell, but it’s never comfortable to know that an ex is sitting on a treasure trove of sensitive material, especially when that ex is a performance artist who’s known for crossing private boundaries in public places. “There were years when I didn’t want anyone to see this,” Decker said, “and I still feel really exposed. I feel completely vulnerable. I think I’m always going to have a complicated relationship with this film.” She paused. “But I said yes to it. I could have said to Zefrey when we broke up that he needed to bury the film. But when you’re going through a breakup, it’s hard to set those kind of boundaries.”

Decker says that she ultimately agreed to go along with Throwell’s vision because of an experience she had on “Bi the Way,” a documentary she co-directed 10 years ago. “It was a highly mediocre film, and it was mediocre because my co-director wouldn’t sign a release form,” she said. “There was all this really amazing footage of a really personal reckoning that she and I went through to make the film, and there was all this footage that was so much more alive than the rest of what we were doing, and it destroyed me to not be able to tell the story that I needed to tell.”

Decker was naturally sympathetic towards Throwell’s process, as her films are also born out of a personal reckoning. “Making things is so painful,” she said. “Art is the commerce of intimacy, in some ways, and that is so complicated. You cross your own boundaries, you cross other peoples’ boundaries, and then you cross other boundaries without even realizing that you’ve invaded someone’s privacy or dignity. As an artist, I think your job is to force yourself into growing through these experiences. Subjecting yourself to things that you’re not ready for or that you’re uncomfortable with is the most beautiful thing that we do in our lives.”

For his part, Throwell sincerely recognizes just how much he was asking of her. “I really appreciate the courage that it took Josephine to stick with the project,” he said. “Your ex-boyfriend calling up and saying can we film again? The first time we did that, we hadn’t seen each other in a year, and so there was some real fresh feelings there,” he said. “But I think that one of the central, gnawing problems that’s occurring in the world right now is that we treat pain like something that should be avoided. There’s no change, there’s no growth without pain, and pain will happen. To act like it won’t happen or to run from it is not only foolish but totally unrealistic.”

If “Flames” never fully illuminates what’s “real” and what’s performance, that’s because it can’t. And if it never maps out the exact point where pain ends and personal growth begins, that’s because there isn’t one. Both forces can overlap or co-exist; they might have to in order to make each other meaningful.

“Flames” is now available on Amazon, iTunes, and Vudu, as well as DVD and Blu-ray.

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